Plath-tered: Suicidal tendencies are catching

Fame has its downside: paparazzi, autograph hounds, being ripped off by business managers, having trouble maintaining relationships... and the threat of being portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow in a movie.

I'll match my eclectic taste against anyone's, but Sylvia has two ingredients that increase the odds against my liking a movie: poetry and Paltrow. It also has a third: a stupid woman making a fool of herself over a man.

Fans of Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), who may like the movie anyway, will be upset at having their icon reduced to such a cliché. But remember: I'm not the one doing it. The film, written by John Brownlow and directed by New Zealander Christine Jeffs (Rain), begins with Plath (Paltrow) meeting fellow poet Edward (better known as Ted) Hughes (Daniel Craig) in 1956 and ending with her final (successful) suicide attempt after a last-ditch effort to reconcile with him.

Although women are constantly throwing themselves at Ted, Sylvia thinks after picking him up at a party that he'll never respond to anyone else's advances. She puts all her eggs in his basket, including two that he fertilizes before she throws him out over his affair with Assia Wevill (Amira Casar).

Sylvia fills Ted in on a couple of her earlier suicide attempts, one by drowning ("I was always happy until I was nine years old... Then my father died") and one with pills in 1953, which her mother (Blythe Danner) describes as, "She just crawled into a hole and wanted to die."

Plath makes a couple of proto-feminist mumblings (when her mother notes that Ted won't be able to support her: "I don't want to be supported") but is so unliberated that she even finds a way to blame herself for her husband's mistress: "If you fear something enough, it can make it happen... I conjured her."

An early scene of poets having a kind of slam in someone's kitchen may be an attempt to make the movie relevant to today's rap fans.

For a better idea of the importance of poetry to the film, check a key scene where Sylvia, finally rid of Ted, begins to write. Her words are drowned out by Gabriel Yared's music, which was intended as a background score. (All things being equal, I'd rather hear the music, but this isn't Yared's biography.) You'll hear more Shakespeare and Yeats than Plath and Hughes in the movie– public domain, you know.

As befits the Patron Saint of the Terminally Depressed, Sylvia devotes about 15 minutes to the happy times of "glamorous Lady Lazarus" and her "Black Marauder," and an hour and a half to the downward spiral that follows.

In her last years, Sylvia lives above a kindly professor (Michael Gambon) in an apartment building with a deadbolt on the inside of the front door. Is that so neighbors can lock each other out?

In her scene with Danner, her real mother, Paltrow shows a strong family resemblance. There are other times when she looks more like Mia Farrow. Her acting fits the director's concept of Plath as a woman with the ability to overdramatize everything, in poetry and in life.

Often murkily photographed, Sylvia must be effective. While watching it I had a strong urge to kill myself.


 Congratulations to the sharp-eyed readers who busted me regarding the prison guard in Gothika. Yes, I forgot he'd been established in a brief early scene as someone Halle Berry's character had been nice to. But that also established him as a family man, which makes it all the less likely he'd throw away his career by offering his car to an escaping criminal, even if she is Halle Berry. OK, I'd do it, and you probably would too, but we expect our movie characters to behave more rationally than we would.